JEAN-CLAUDE HALF FELL, half moved off of Micah. Blood sprayed in a red rain as he knelt on all fours, coughing, as if he were trying to clear his throat. It made the blood pump faster.
I screamed, at first wordless, then I thought of something better. I screamed, "Asher!"
Micah was already rolling in black fur, bones sliding in and out, muscles rolling in glimpses of pinkish flesh. He'd shapeshift and heal himself, but Jean-Claude couldn't shapeshift.
I grabbed Jean-Claude's arm, and the moment I touched him the marks flared between us. I was choking on my own blood, drowning in it. Strong hands were digging into my arms, fingers like cold stone. I blinked and found Jean-Claude's face glowing like carved alabaster with white light inside it. His skin glowed behind the coating of blood on his lower face, like rubies spread across diamonds. His eyes were pools of molten sapphire flame, if fire could be cold, achingly cold. A wind sprang from his body, from our bodies, and it was the cold of the grave that danced around us, fluttered our hair around our faces. We reached that cold power out, out, to find Richard, and as before the answer came against our skin. Jason was kneeling beside us. I didn't have time to marvel that he was healed. He touched us and the mark that was Richard flared through his body, a warmth to dance with our coldness. And I knew Micah was kneeling behind me, furred and clawed. I felt him at my back the way I felt Jason, as if he were tied to us.
Micah fell back, screaming, "Nooo!" The tie was cut and for a second I swayed, as if part of my support was gone, then Nathaniel was there, and the world was solid again.
We knelt, bound by flesh, magic, and blood. I watched the flesh in Jean-Claude's throat reknit, reform, remake, reshape itself until the flesh was perfect and white, surrounded by a coating of wet blood. He'd healed so fast that the blood hadn't had time to dry.
I smelled roses, not the faint perfume of potpourri, but thick, melt-on-your-tongue, old-fashioned garden roses, as if I were drowning in the cloying sweetness of them. It was like being dipped in honey that you knew had poison in it.
Honey, honey brown eyes. I remembered the pale honey brown of Belle Morte's eyes. "Do you smell the roses?" I asked.
Jean-Claude turned drowning blue eyes to me. "Roses? I smell nothing but the scent of your perfume, and skin." He scented the air, "And blood."
Nathaniel and Jason were lost in the wonder of the power rush, but no one smelled roses but me. Once upon a time I'd smelled perfume when a certain Master Vampire had been using her magic. My friend and fellow animator, Larry Kirkland, had smelled the perfume, too, but no one else around us had been able to scent it.
I looked into Jean-Claude's eyes, not with my sight, but with my magic, and found something, something that wasn't him. It was subtle. What she'd done with me earlier had been like a sledgehammer between the eyes; this was a stiletto in the dark.
I found the thread of her power coiled in him, and the moment my magic, my necromancy, hit it, the power uncoiled, opened, and it was like a window thrown wide. I saw her sitting in her room by fire and candlelight, as if electricity hadn't been invented. She was dressed in a white lace dressing gown, all that black hair falling around her, and a bowl of pink roses next to her pale hand. She turned those huge pale brown eyes to me, and I saw the surprise on her face, the shock. She saw me kneeling with the men, as I saw her before her dressing table with her roses.
I cut her off, cast her out of Jean-Claude, as I'd cast her out of me earlier. It was easier, because she hadn't tried to possess him, only to tamper with him, to be that dark voice in his ear that pushed him a little over the edge.
Jean-Claude slumped suddenly, as if dizzy. He raised eyes to me that were as normal as they ever got, his usual midnight blue. There was fear on his face, no hiding it. "I thought I saw Belle, sitting before her mirror."
I nodded. "You did."
He looked at me, and I think that only all our hands on him kept him from falling to the floor. "She weakened my control of the ardeur."
"And your control of your temper," I said.
"What has happened?" Asher asked.
I looked up to find that everyone was back in the room. "Any of this blood yours, ma'am?" Bobby Lee asked.
I shook my head. "Not a scratch on me."
"Then I guess we won't get blacklisted from the bodyguard union for leaving you alone with a shapeshifter and a vampire, so they could fight over you." He was shaking his head. "The next time you ask us to leave you alone because it's your love life, we aren't going to listen to you."
I shook my head, again. "We'll talk about it later."
"No, ma'am," he said, "we won't."
I let the argument go. There was always time to fight later. Besides, he was too close to right. If I'd gotten between them at the wrong moment, who knew what accident might have happened?
Jean-Claude spoke softly, voice urgent, to Asher. They were speaking French and I still didn't know enough to catch more than a word here and there. I heard Belle, clearly, several times.
In English Asher said, "Do you remember Marcel?"
"Oui. He went mad one night and slew his entire household."
"Including his human servant," Asher said, "which is what killed him."
The two vampires stared at each other. "No one ever understood what had caused it," Jean-Claude said.
"So fortuitous," Asher said, "only two nights before he would have fought Belle for her Council seat."
Jean-Claude took Asher's offered hand and let him help him to his feet. Asher had to steady Jean-Claude with a hand on his elbow. "So fortuitous that many tried to prove she had poisoned him, or some such," Asher said.
Jean-Claude nodded, passing a hand over his face, as if he were still dizzy. I felt nothing, as if my necromancy protected me from whatever Belle had done to him. "The Council themselves tried to prove her at fault and failed," Jean-Claude said.
"Did they hire a witch to look into the magic angle?" I asked. I stood on my own, just fine. Nathaniel and Jason got to their feet, again with no ill-effects, except for Jason's stupid grin, which he often wore after a power rush
The vampires looked at me. "Non," Asher said, "no one thought of it."
"Why the hell not?"
"Because, ma petite, she should not be able to do what she did to a Master of the City, even one of her own bloodline. That she could do this to a Master of the City that was not her bloodline would be unthinkable."
"Impossible," Asher added.
"I think it's like real possible," I said. "I caught her in the act."
"Who's Belle?" Micah asked in his growling leopard voice.
I turned to him, slowly, and something must have shown on my face, because Merle moved in front of him, and suddenly the two wererats were alert, starting to move up beside me. I don't know what I was about to say, probably something really angry, because Micah beat me to it.
"He pierced my jugular vein, Anita. I'm allowed to defend myself when someone tries to eat my throat out."
"Remember I'm his human servant. He dies, so might I."
He stalked around Merle, gliding on bent legs and kitty-cat feet. "So I'm just supposed to let him kill me?"
"No," I said, "no, but your wound wasn't life-threatening. You proved that already. There's not a scratch on you now."
"I healed it, yes, but not every shapeshifter could have healed it. A vampire wound is a lot like silver, it can kill, and most of us heal from those wounds like we were human." He was standing very close to me, those green-gold eyes sparkling with anger. "He meant to kill me, Anita, don't think he didn't."
"He is right, ma petite, if he had not held me off more, I would have torn his throat out."
I turned back to Jean-Claude. "What are you saying?"
"I saw him on top of you, and I was drowning in jealousy. I meant him harm, ma petite. He defended himself."
"He didn't have to do that last blow. The fight had stopped."
Jean-Claude looked past me at Micah, and there was something on his face-- respect, I think. "If he had done to me what I did to him, then I would have had no choice but to make my point," he seemed to consider several words and settled for, "strongly."
"Strongly? He damn near slit your throat."
"After I had tried to do the same to him."
I was shaking my head. "No, no, I don't ..."
"What, ma petite, are you truly saying that if someone had torn your throat out, tried for your life that you wouldn't have shot them?"
I opened my mouth to argue, closed it, tried again, and stopped. I looked at him, then back at Micah, then back to Jean-Claude. "Well, damn."
"The Nimir-Raj has made his point, ma petite. He is willing to be accommodating up to a point--beyond that point there is no compromise."
Micah nodded, and the movement looked awkward in his furred body. "Yes."
"You have the same rule, ma petite, as do I. The three of us merely have different places where the line is drawn. But the line is there for all of us."
"How can you both be so reasonable about this? You both nearly just killed each other?"
They looked at each other, around me, again, and there was something in that look. It was something masculine and arcane, as if the fact that I was a girl meant I wouldn't get it, and they couldn't explain it to me. Which did explain it to me.
"Oh, great, great, you guys nearly kill each other, and that makes you buddies."
Jean-Claude gave that wonderful Gallic shrug, his face still covered in Micah's blood. "Let us say we have an understanding."
"Jesus, only men could get a friendship out of something like this."
"You are friends with Monsieur Edward. Did you not both begin by trying to kill each other?" Jean-Claude asked.
"That's different," I said.
I tried to argue, but stopped because I would have looked silly. "Fine, fine, so what, the two of you kiss and make up?"
They looked at each other, and again there was weight to the gaze, but it was a different weight. "Shit," I said.
"I think we begin by apologizing," Jean-Claude said. "I am truly sorry for my lack of control."
"Me, too," Micah said, then added, "and I'm sorry that I had to try and kill you." It was interesting phrasing, not I'm sorry I nearly killed you, but sorry I had to try and kill you. I was seeing Micah's ruthless streak. It wasn't really any bigger than my own, but it bothered me anyway. Wasn't sure why, but it did.
I didn't know what to do, so I decided to move on, we had other business. "Are you well enough to help get Damian out of his coffin?"
"I have used up all my reserves, ma petite. I will need to feed again." He raised a hand. "But not the ardeur, merely blood."
Merely, he says.
"I offered to let you feed on me earlier. The offer still stands," Micah said.
"No, Micah," Merle said.
Micah touched the taller man's arm. "It's alright."
"Are you not afraid I will try and tear your throat out again? I would listen to your bodyguard."
"You said we had an understanding."
"That is true."
They were watching each other, and I could almost feel the testosterone rise.
Micah smiled, or tried to. In the half-leopard form it was a snarl of white fangs in black fur. "Besides, the next time you bite me like that, it better be foreplay, or I will kill you."
"If it pleases you, my pleasure," Jean-Claude said. He laughed then, that touchable sound that caressed my skin, made me shiver. Micah reacted to it eyes wide. He'd never heard Jean-Claude's laugh before. If he thought the laugh was something special, well, the best truly was yet to come.
"I thank you for your most generous offer," Jean-Claude said, "but I prefer my food without fur."
"No problem," Micah said. Micah released Merle's arm, and did that magically quick change. His tanned skin seemed to absorb the fur like rocks sinking into water. He stood naked and perfect, no mark of the fight on that smooth skin. Neither his clothing nor the tie in his hair had survived the change. But strangely the hair fell straight around his face, as if it were affected by the fact that he'd pulled it back tight while it was still wet. The hair was still thick, but it framed his face better, was less overwhelming, so that you could still see the delicate bone structure, those wondrous eyes.
I heard someone catch their breath, and it wasn't me. I don't think it was Jean-Claude, but I wasn't sure. Didn't matter, didn't want to know.
"You are not even dizzy, are you?" Jean-Claude asked.
Micah shook his head.
Jean-Claude raised his eyebrows, lowered his eyes, fought to control his face, until he could give a perfect blank expression, but it took him a few seconds. "I will clean this," he made a vague motion at his gore-soaked clothes, "before taking such a bounty, if that is alright?"
Micah gave a small nod.
"You are not taking a bath," I said.
"I will be quick, ma petite."
"You have never taken a quick bath in your entire life."
Asher laughed, then tried to smother it, but was only partially successful. He spread his hands. "Mon cheri, she is right."
"Would I touch that for the first time covered in this?"
Asher's face sobered instantly, like someone had thrown a switch. He turned that serious, blank face to stare at Micah, who stared back. If he was uncomfortable under the scrutiny, it didn't show.
Asher sighed. "I suppose not."
"And what are we supposed to do for the hour that it takes you to soak in the tub?" I asked.
"I will be quick, ma petite, my word on it."
I crossed my arms over my stomach. "I'll believe it when I see it."
"Ma petite, I have given my word."
"On important stuff, your word is great, but when it comes to primping; you have no sense of time."
"I thought that was the man's line," Bobby Lee said.
I glanced at him then back to the vampire. "Couldn't prove it by me."
Bobby Lee laughed, but no one else did.